Developmental experts who've studied humor say a childhood filled with laughter and fun has benefits that last a lifetime. "A sense of humor offers a huge advantage in life," says Lawrence J. Cohen, author of Playful Parenting and a psychologist specializing in children's play. "It's one of the best ways people have figured out to cope with things that are difficult." A child who can easily tap his funny bone is more likely to make strong friendships, be well-liked by peers, and as an adult get along with colleagues at work, manage frustration, diffuse conflict, and suffer less from depression. A sense of humor is also linked to intelligence, self-esteem, creativity, and problem solving.
What's more, humor offers parents rare insight into their children's cognitive development. As humor expert Paul McGhee points out, humor is a form of intellectual play. In infants, laughter is initially stimulated by physical play (tickling, raspberries, and very gentle rough-and-tumble). But as early as 6 or 7 months, when babies start to gain a clearer sense of their world and how it works, they begin taking pleasure in seeing that known world turned on its head — the very essence of humor.
When your child "gets the joke," it's a sign that he's developing significant intellectual skills. So celebrate when your infant gurgles with glee over a game of peekaboo, your 1-year-old titters madly when you sing "Mary Had a Little Lamb" in a Tweety Bird voice, your preschooler giggles wildly when you hold a shoe to your ear and say, "Hello?", or your 7-year-old pulls off his first pun.
Parents who laugh often and easily with their children understand that humor is an invaluable parenting tool, one that can be used to discipline without conflict. Moms and dads accustomed to yukking it up with their children also find it's a way to stay close.
The best part? Play and laughter, the foundations of humor, are part of our genetic makeup and preceded human language. Robert R. Provine, author of Laughter: A Scientific Investigation and a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, says the "ha-ha" sound of laughter evolved from the sound we make in physical childhood play — the panting sound of our breathing when engaged in, say, tickling and rough-and-tumble activities.
The key, says Provine, is that a baby's earliest laughter, and most humor that follows in childhood and into adulthood, is an elemental form of social bonding. It could be said that humor, a more sophisticated means to evoke giggles and guffaws, is a way to re-create that unadulterated joy of childhood laughter when we're completely engaged with another person.
Funny like me
Can humor be taught, or is it an inherited trait like left-handedness and green eyes? While some children seem to be born with a bubbly, good-natured disposition, developmental psychologists say humor can be taught. Think of it as a muscle (one no doubt near the funny bone) that needs to be strengthened and worked regularly.
So what's the secret to teaching your child to get in touch with his inner comedian? Rush out to enroll your toddler in mommy and me stand-up classes? Happily, it's more straightforward than that. If you want to have a fun and funny child, there's no better role model than you.
Being funny shouldn't be another burden to add to an already hefty parenting to-do list (8 a.m.: Make clown pancakes; 1 p.m.: Tell an elephant joke; 5 p.m.: Slip on a banana peel). You don't need to be Ellen DeGeneres to get a laugh. All you have to do is tap into your silliest self.
Fortunately, you have years to develop your act, starting with your goofiest material for your baby. Tickle her toes and sing "Itsy Bitsy Spider" in a ridiculous voice. To crack up your toddler, put a shoe on your head and a hat on your foot. Pick up your 4-year-old's favorite action hero and have him announce what's on the menu for dinner.
This isn't to suggest that your household has to be Comedy Central 24/7. But there's plenty of room for playfulness. In an age when parenting can feel like such serious business, with somber advice on the perils of toilet training too late and the importance of signing up for the best preschool on time, it's worth remembering that fun and games have their place.
"Humor and fun make your household run more smoothly,"
Spencer and her kids yuk it up at the beach
says Paula Spencer, mother of four and author of Momfidence! An Oreo Never Killed Anybody and Other Secrets of Happier Parenting. "It helps kids feel more relaxed and confident and have more goodwill toward you." Plus, a funny thing happens on your way to making your child giggle. As scientists attest, laughter is infectious. Once you get your child guffawing, you'll find yourself in stitches too.
And why not have fun? You're in the parenting gig for a good 18 years. Your family might as well have a few good laughs along the way.
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